Songdo City, Part 1: 'Nudge' Paternalism in the Big Data City …

Songdo City, Part 1: 'Nudge' Paternalism in the Big Data City …


Songdo City, Part 1: ‘Nudge’ Paternalism in the Big Data City

[Part 1 of the 3-part series on Songdo City, South Korea]

The world’s first “smart city” is nearing completion. Called an “aerotropolis” by some, Songdo will be an industry hub for international business travel. A clean-tech Startup City of sustainable urban life. A Korean ‘Big Apple’ imitating the density, structure, and Central Park of Manhattan. A city of Big Data and social-engineering. Either a realization of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis or Orwell’s 1984, depending on where one draws the line between convenience and intrusion.

With almost every device, home, street, car, business, and even trash-can connected to Cisco’s data hub, the possibilities for improving people’s lives are both incredibly promising and somewhat concerning. Street lights turn off when no one is around, traffic and public transportation are monitored in real-time, internet equipped appliances talk to each other, and you can even video-conference your doctor or yogi with your standard-issue living-room TelePresence TV.

Then again, those long showers you enjoy might incrementally get colder to limit water consumption, your thermostat may turn down in favor of a sweater, and security cameras can keep track of micro-chip equipped children.

If, at this point, you’re giving your computer-screen a reproachful head-tilt, reach into your pocket, pull out your cell phone, and turn those ridiculing eyes back on yourself. Even the more privacy-sensitive among us have eagerly conceded our constant geo-location for a convenience once thought to be wholly unnecessary merely a quarter century ago. Songdo will surely offer very significant and enviable conveniences.

However, the most profound implications of Songdo’s unprecedented collection of social data are yet unknown. “Nudging”—or soft compliance achieved through positive reinforcement and indirect suggestion—will be dramatically empowered with Cisco’s insights into how Songdo’s denizens live, work and interact. Already influential and privatized in U.S. and European policy circles, “nudge units” are likely to follow in the footsteps of Smart City experience and policy.

Popularized by Sunstein and Thaler’s recent book Nudge, the idea is essentially that we are often ‘irrational’ and we do not think very deeply about everyday choices. In situations where we make “automatic” on-the-fly decisions, we can be nudged towards the choice we would likely make upon greater reflection.

Businesses already profit from behavioral insight and the entire marketing industry is based upon it. Grocery stores put candies we wouldn’t otherwise buy in their check-out isles. Nudge policy can do the same for school cafeterias—placing healthier foods at eye-level to improve student diet.

Through policy recommendations, the British ‘Nudge Unit’ has dramatically increased payments of fines and on-time taxes by merely sending text reminders and casually phrased letters to citizens.

But nudges don’t always work. We’ve learned that requiring calorie information next to menu items encourages women to pick healthier options, but influences men to pick higher-calorie dishes. Ethical safeguards and reviews do not exist for nudging to the same extent they do for drug trials and medical research.

Successful or not, nudging is unsettling for those who consider it subliminal manipulation, or when the policy proves unpopular. We may want to decrease elderly loneliness, but nudging them to move into smaller homes or return to work did not sit well with the British public.

This method of ‘soft paternalism’ can both reduce the use of coercive policy while also offering a less visible, and thus accountable, government intrusion into personal autonomy. Yet the choice not to nudge, and leave the default, is often as much a biased influence as a nudge itself.

Similarly, Songdo represents a choice not to be blind to social inefficiencies as much as it does a choice of paternalistic social-engineering.

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June 27th by Zachary Caceres

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Songdo City, Part 1: 'Nudge' Paternalism in the Big Data City …

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